The Yankees have settled on a first baseman, reportedly agreeing to terms with Anthony Rizzo on a two-year, $32MM guarantee. The deal pays the Sports One Athlete Management client $16MM salaries annually and gives him the opportunity to opt out after the 2022 campaign. The contract is pending a physical.
Rizzo will be returning to the Bronx, where he finished the 2021 season. New York acquired him from the Cubs in advance of the trade deadline, and he hit .249/.340/.428 in 200 plate appearances in pinstripes down the stretch. That was more or less in line with the .248/.346/.446 mark he’d put up in 376 trips to the plate with Chicago over the season’s first couple months.
It was the second straight season of reasonable but unexciting production for Rizzo. He’d posted a .222/.342/.414 line during the shortened 2020 campaign. Going back two seasons, he owns a .240/.343/.432 mark over 819 plate appearances. By measure of wRC+, that production checks in nine percentage points above the league average hitter’s. It’s actually a bit below the standard (.254/.335/.455, 113 wRC+) set by first basemen around the league.
It’s been a rather sharp downturn for Rizzo as he’s entered his 30’s. He broke out with the Cubs in 2014, his age-24 campaign. Over the next six seasons, he never posted a wRC+ below 126. Overall, Rizzo hit .284/.388/.513 between 2014-19, with his 141 wRC+ in that stretch tying for twelfth among 375 qualified hitters.
Rizzo was a lineup anchor for the Cubs as they emerged from their rebuild, and he was also highly-regarded for his leadership and presence in the clubhouse. That combination made him perhaps the face of the Cubs’ most successful run in over a century. He appeared in three consecutive All-Star games from 2014-16, finishing in the top ten in NL MVP voting each season. Rizzo played a key role on Chicago’s curse-breaking World Series winner in 2016, and he remained highly productive for three years beyond that even as the team never recaptured that level of postseason success.
The Yankees would be thrilled with their investment if he were to recapture anything near that form next season. Yet there’s clearly some trepidation around the league regarding Rizzo’s back-to-back relative down years. Just 12 months ago, Ken Rosenthal and Patrick Mooney of the Athletic reported that the Cubs had put a five-year, $70MM extension offer on the table. Rizzo declined Chicago’s overture, preferring to bet on himself after his middle-of-the-road 2020 season. After continuing to produce at a similar level over a full schedule in 2021, though, he essentially finds himself accepting a pillow contract and betting on a bounceback once again.
To be sure, Rizzo still does a lot of things well. He continues to boast an enviable combination of contact and raw power. Rizzo’s 81.5% contact rate and 15.1% strikeout percentage last season were both well better than average; so too were his 90.1 MPH average exit velocity and 41.1% hard contact rate. That neither Rizzo’s bat-to-ball skills nor his bat speed have evaporated lend hope he may again find some of his old form.
It’s also possible that forthcoming rules changes could aid Rizzo as he ages (albeit not during the upcoming season). The left-handed hitter has become more pull-oriented over the past two seasons than he’d been throughout his career. Not coincidentally, he has faced a higher rate of defensive shifts that have contributed to lackluster results on balls in play. Rizzo’s .246 batting average on balls in play since the start of 2020 ranks 108th out of 114 qualified hitters. That may continue to be an issue this year, but it’s expected MLB will implement restrictions on defensive shifting beginning with the 2023 campaign.
However one feels about Rizzo’s long-term projection at the plate, there’s not as much question about the value he brings on the other side of the ball. He’s a four-time Gold Glove Award winner who was unanimously well-regarded by public defensive metrics up through 2020. Defensive Runs Saved felt he dropped off in that regard last year, but Statcast’s Outs Above Average remained bullish on his work. Rizzo seems a fairly definitive upgrade with the glove over incumbent first baseman Luke Voit, who has always been a bat-first player — even relative to the lower defensive standards of the position.
With Rizzo back in the fold, it stands to reason Voit’s name will come up in trade talks over the coming weeks. They could coexist as a first base/designated hitter pairing on many rosters, but the Yankees don’t have many DH at-bats to spare. They’ve leaned heavily on the position to keep Giancarlo Stanton from having to shoulder too significant a workload in the outfield. Even if Stanton were capable of assuming more defensive responsibilities than he has in the recent past, New York already has a projected starting outfield of Joey Gallo, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge.
More broadly, it has become apparent in recent months the Yankees weren’t fully committed to Voit, the 2020 MLB home run leader. They traded for Rizzo at the deadline, then reportedly came close to pulling the trigger on a subsequent deal that would’ve shipped Voit out over the summer. That never came to fruition, but the Yankees were again tied to bigger names at first base this offseason. New York was in contact with the A’s about Matt Olson before Oakland traded him to the Braves. More recently, they were considered among the top handful of suitors for Olson’s predecessor in Atlanta.
With Rizzo returning to the Bronx, it no longer seems the Yankees will be in that Freddie Freeman mix. The Braves have already moved on to Olson, leaving Freeman’s future home one of the most fascinating remaining storylines of the offseason. Recent reports have generally cast the Dodgers as the leading contender for the 2020 NL MVP, with the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Padres reported to be on the outskirts of his market.
Wherever he ends up, Freeman is sure to command a deal much loftier than the one the Yankees are guaranteeing Rizzo. New York has been wary of making a long-term commitment to free agents this winter, with the desire to work out an extension with Judge seemingly looming over the offseason calculus. Yet the recent trade for Josh Donaldson and today’s agreement with Rizzo solidify that the Yankees will exceed the competitive balance tax threshold in 2022 after dipping below the marker last season.
After today’s agreement, New York has around $244MM in real payroll and $258MM in CBT obligations on the books this year, in the estimation of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. (Luxury tax calculations are determined by summing contracts’ average annual values and player benefits as opposed to looking strictly at actual year-over-year salaries). They’ll pay a 20% fee on every dollar spent between $230MM and $250MM, as well as a 32% tax on every dollar between $250MM and $270MM. They’d face even higher penalties for exceeding $270MM and $290MM, and it’s not clear how far owner Hal Steinbrenner and the front office are willing to push things this season.
New York will see the salaries of both Aroldis Chapman ($16MM) and Zack Britton ($14MM) come off the books after this year. Judge and Gallo, both of whom have lofty projected arbitration tallies in 2022, will be hitting free agency. There should be decent long-term maneuverability for general manager Brian Cashman and his staff. How much more they’ll do in the short term remains to be seen, but a Voit trade at least looks like a very plausible next step as they try to round out the 2022 roster.
Jordan Brown first reported the Yankees and Rizzo were in agreement on a two-year, $32MM guarantee with an opt-out after 2022. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported he’ll be paid flat salaries of $16MM in each year.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.